Category Archives: Opinion

Arbitrary Value Assignment

Today I would like to write about arbitrary value assignment and how it relates to adoption or rejection of technology and culture.

When I say technology I am not merely talking about iPads, apps and laptops; but all objects which have been developed in conjunction with application of knowledge of scientific principles. In other words, a broader definition.

First, lets talk about physical books. Printed, bound and inky books. These were developed through application of science and technology. Compared to an eReader they look downright shabby – possessing no batteries, LCD screen or even speakers. They are technology, however, and thus can be compared directly to an eReader in the same paradigm.

It is important to note that the word “book” simultaneously (and I would argue equally) describes both a physical bound and printed written work and the contents thereof. A good example is the books of the Bible. We are well aware that they are separate, individual works despite being bound together, and so we retain the designation, rather than lumping them all together. The medium is not the message. If the text of Moby Dick were written on a giant cave wall in charcoal, would people still call it a book? I think so. Regardless what people call it, would it be any less profound, thrilling or educational? Of course not.

“Stop!” a critic might exclaim, “the tedium of reading off a cave wall would distract the reader, and thus might make the story less effective!” That would be an astute observation, and it leads me to my first point. A medium or any “thing” for that matter, should be judged according to its merits, and not upon arbitrary value assignments.

How this applies to books is that many individuals feel it is important to champion paper books over eReaders beyond a pro/con analysis. They take the argument into a realm of ethereal ideas of quality based upon something, something that makes paper books more… well just better. That something is an arbitrary value assignment.

What is a value assignment, and what makes one arbitrary? A value assignment is labeling something as “good” or “bad.” This can be meant in a moralistic sense or a simply practical one, with “bad” being informally substituted in the place of “unsatisfactory.” People do this by collecting evidence and then making a decision. If evidence is not taken into account, then that judgement is arbitrary, or baseless. Assuming one wants to live a life guided by rational decisions (many don’t mind omitting logic from the source of their beliefs, hence the designation) then arbitrary value assignments are… well, bad.

How does this relate to technology and culture adoption? People commonly assign arbitrary value when evaluating new things. In my observation, the most common way this is accomplished is to view old or previously established things, ways of behaving, doing, etc, as better than the new way, thing, or idea. To put it differently, people are used to the way things have been, and thus push against the new. This is not a unique idea I am presenting here, but I do feel it is an original spin on what has previously been said. What I want to point out, however, is that this behavior, of automatically judging things in one lump established=good/unproven=bad is not rational, as it could prevent people from obtaining potential benefit.

People often scoff at new ideas only because they are new. Not because they have evaluated and judged them, but because they are unfamiliar. Sometimes people believe they are making a rational judgement, when in fact they are merely filtering ideas through their previous understanding of the thing. A good example is the argument of whether children should be given cell phones. Younger and younger children are being given cell phones because of decrease in prices for basic calling plans and the phones themselves. The parents do this for added child safety. Many people deride the parents of these children, like they are somehow soiling their youth because… well… um… it just seems like kids shouldn’t have cell phones. Kids didn’t use to have cell phones (actually no-one did, but that is beside the point), so why do they suddenly need them now? Despite the obvious flaw in this argument (we didn’t previously have antibiotics either) people defer to it in a vain attempt to express what they are feeling. It is my argument that the disdain they feel for this possibility of kids having cell phones is not based upon logic or reasoning, but simply because previously kids just didn’t have them, so that just seems right. 

It seems like kids should be reared having to call from a landline, memorizing phone numbers while being careful to plan departure and arrival times so as not to worry parents. But that is only because it is the way that adults today had to do it when they were young. Sure, certain skills may have been learned by doing it that way, but those specific skills, if not taught through the new way of owning a cell phone, probably aren’t needed anymore.

For instance, I can only imagine what kind of skills are developed through computer programming on punchcards. Make sure you don’t make a mistake because once those holes are in the paper, they will remain! However, that isn’t how computers are programmed anymore. So while there were probably a few graduating computer scientists who learned the punchcard method while their college updated the curriculum, the industry quickly moved on, forgetting the outdated method. There were, no doubt, old curmudgeonly programmers who scoffed at the new young programmers who hadn’t even seen a punchcard. They must have judged them as lacking an integral skill or important experience that, although unquantifiable, must be important because it was experienced by someone. 

It is this appeal to feeling that I believe is absolutely useless. If one is unable to articulate why something should or shouldn’t be used/adopted/completed/etc and are relying on a sort of instinctual gut feeling, it is likely that the underlying reasoning is based upon an irrational line of reasoning. This is not to be confused with split decision making and fight or flight response, wherein a person makes a “gut” decision and acts quickly.

It is important to identify our own internal reference material. In academic studies one is required to verify sources of information to ensure validity. So too should individuals when making decisions, since it is absolutely possible that the seed of any one particular bit of information began as a half-formed thought, based in bias or misinformation. To use a historical example, designers of the RMS Titanic believed the design to be unsinkable. They based other decisions, such as how many lifeboats to place on the ship, upon this flawed premise. How many other decisions were poisoned by the faulty reasoning on this principal portion of the design?

Again, I feel that one of the most common elemental erroneous judgements is that things that have been around for a while are better than those that are new. It is common to look back at past decades as simpler, happier times. Who hasn’t gazed at a 1950s marketing image for Coca-Cola and thought “It sure would have been nice to live back then”? What many fail to remember is that at this time blacks were marginalized in the United States to a significantly greater degree than today, as were women discriminated against in the workplace, while various diseases remained yet uncured. You won’t see that intentionally in an ad for dyed and carbonated sugar water.

In summation, it is important that we don’t confuse feelings of comfort with perceived merit. It is irrational to make value assignments based purely upon how established something already is. People should study their preconceived notions, and judge all incoming data upon valid information, and not merely an inclination or feeling.

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Filed under Books, Opinion, Random, Rant, Tech

The Solace Found in Dealing with Reality

Lately I’ve been reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. I read it last summer and I am thinking that I would like to read it every summer, or at least until I grow tired of it.

I have been pondering one passage in particular, which says, “A motorcycle functions entirely in accordance with the laws of reason, and a study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of rationality itself.” Within this single declaration lies an entire nest of truths relating to life, happiness and logic.

The successful operation of a motorcycle is contingent upon cause and effect relationships. If the needs of the motorcycle are ignored, it will fail. Take the tires of the motorcycle, for instance. You can reasonably expect that if you keep them at the correct pressure, only use them while they have adequate tread, ensure they were properly installed, and use them on roads clear of debris such as glass or nails, that they will work the way they are supposed to. The tires do not think. They do not decide to fail or decide to work properly. They have no intent to punish their user or help them. This is a harsh truth, as people don’t like to acknowledge that the reason their car, computer, body, or career is not behaving the way they would like it to is not without potential explanation. It did not just happen.

Things fall apart if not maintained. This is an expression of entropy, which, in simple terms, is the inclination for things to deteriorate into disorder. This may on the surface seem unsettling, but in fact there is solace to be found within this universal law. It is predictable. If you are aware of something happening, you can prepare for its repercussions; expect them.

This is in contrast to exercising superstition. Believing that you are simply unlucky—that someone or something chose you to experience a flat tire as a trial or learning experience can lead to anxiety. Why were you chosen, not another? This leads to extreme apprehension, with the threat of yet another trial, seemingly dealt at random, being thrown your way.

If one understands, however, the cause and effect relationships at play, then a person may rest at ease completely aware of how much of their destiny is (or isn’t) in their own hands. Those who understand and can maintain computers understand that humans—not the computers themselves, are responsible for most computer related problems. Sometimes the problem stems from the user deleting a file vital to the computer’s operation. Other times the problem arises because the programmer left a mistake in the software code, leading to a hiccup in the computer’s processes. Never do computers spontaneously “decide” to quit working, only to spite their user in a fit of rage.

Humans have a great advantage in that we created computers, and thus understand them. Can you imagine if no-one fully understood them? What if they had been around since human history began? I imagine that then people may resort to superstition. In the event of a problem they may leave offerings in front of the computer, or mumble incantations to try and please the device in order for it to work correctly. Little would they know that the operation they are trying to run requires more random access memory or scratch disk allocation. This may sound silly, yet people resort to the same kind of thing despite our having created the computers ourselves, as a species. They believe that the device acts irrational, deciding to work one day and not the next. People do this with everything we don’t fully understand, be it incurable disease, death, or others.

So it goes with other aspects of human life. When large, life changing events occur, people are quick to assign superstitious origin to them. Deaths, unwanted pregnancy, tragic accidents, financial troubles: all of these are often attributed to some greater meaning or plan, divvied out by some greater force, be it a god, karma, or cosmic ethereal ness which governs human interaction. In reality, the source of all of these is quite traceable through cause and effect relationships. If people are honest with themselves they know exactly why these events occurred, be it a reckless lifestyle, poor planning, or failure to maintain some aspect of life. Even a car crash, which seems to happen at random, is a quite reasonably foreseeable result of traveling at high speed near others traveling at high speed in the opposite direction. It is easier to blame another when things like this happen, and perhaps even easier to assume that it is for a greater purpose. But what about the small things? Have you ever heard of someone blaming their god for a stubbed toe? It seems ridiculous, but where is the line drawn? Is there a threshold above which gods and luck begin intervening?

Rather than offer solace, this system of seemingly arbitrary intervention can lead to stress and anxiety. If a person believes that their computer could fail at any moment for no reason, they will not trust the device, and the benefit it could offer them would be severely limited. The inverse is true as well. If someone believes that good things only come when bestowed by a cosmic force, they may fail to act, waiting for the lottery of life to deal them a better card, failing to acknowledge the true source of their boon.

Again, there is solace to be found in understanding cause and effect relationships and acknowledging the role they play in our lives, eschewing illogical superstition. To ignore these relationships is to be deluded (a form of madness), and live in a world where everything is arbitrary. Humans may not have control over all the variables that affect them every day, but they can acknowledge their true source. If they do this then they, like a motorcycle, will operate entirely in accordance with the laws of reason.

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Big Band Theory: Part II

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about what happens when a band becomes popular. You can read the full post here, but what I basically said in a long diatribe was that their music suffers when more money becomes involved. I didn’t necessarily blame artists for accepting their ticket to cash city, but I did try to distinguish that ceasing to like a band once they hit the big-time can be initiated for reasons other than trying to be cool. I would like to drive the point home with something I observed recently.

I was browsing Vimeo today and came across a video which I would like to share.

Owl City “To The Sky” from Endeavor Media Group on Vimeo.

At this link you can find Adam Young, or Owl City, singing a song about flight, wings, and adventure while clips from a movie about owls, flight, wings and adventure play. This song is on the soundtrack for said movie. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what happened behind the scenes, though I am going to spell it out. First, I would like to present a small snippet from my last post:
“Yes, they are still the same band–in a way. When a band gets signed to a big label, they are required to do things that even they may object to. For instance, they may be required to allow their song to be featured on a blockbuster movie, or even write a song specifically for it (see Jack’s Mannequin, Dashboard Confessional, Taking Back Sunday). Such a song will usually include lame lyrics contrived to somehow vaguely mention the plot or theme of the movie. When you hear the voice of your memories advertising the latest blockbuster, you can’t help but feel like the memories you created while listening to that music are cheapened a little.”

Sound familiar? Owl City was mentioned in my last post for changing his stage show to make it more marketable and exciting, holding a guitar instead of working a synth. The reason for this post is that I could not help but point out fulfillment of my prophecy as his market presence has grown.
Here is how I imagine the scenario played out; I have written it to be performed on stage:

(Three men sit at a large table in dark suits. A faint skyline is visible behind them out a large ornate window, illustrating their wealth)
Man #1: Well who can we get for the soundtrack? No-one will buy the actual music used in the movie. We need pop and we need it now! (Slams fist on table, takes a large gulp from a whisky glass)
Man #2: How about Owl City? His non-offensive synth-backed crooning is perfect for our target audience, plus the name has ‘owl’ in it. It’s perfect!
(The lights fade stage left, and stage right is illuminated where Adam Young sits, hunched over a table reading a large paper. A man in a suit stands behind him)
Suit: Buzz from last summer’s album is fading, and you need a hit! The fans on your tour with John Mayer weren’t as impressed with ‘Fireflies’ as they used to be!
Adam Young: But do I really have to make it so obvious I wrote the song for the movie? Aren’t all my other songs upbeat enough to include in the soundtrack?
(The lights fade as Owl City song ‘Record Contract Woes’ is played by the orchestra made up of 15 musicians all on Moog synthesizers set to ‘strings’.)

I don’t think that Adam Young is to blame. He has to make a buck just like everyone else. He also has to stay in the public eye because who knows how long his shelf life will be. I will say, however that his new song is not art, meaning not created for the sake of creation and expression. It is not the same as the songs he released before. I do not appreciate his new song. I’m sure he doesn’t mind. However, if he alienates his entire fan base by ceasing to write songs for self-expression, I bet he would start to mind when they stop buying his music.
I use the term ‘art’ loosely here. I bet some would argue that it isn’t real art anyways, so who cares. To these people I reply that it may not be fine or high art, but still fundamentally differentiated from his previous works in quality level. This is sufficient cause for someone to be justified in claiming that they don’t like his new song, while still enjoying previous songs. In addition, future songs may now be compromised, as it has been seen that the songs are now viewed by him as a commodity to be sold. Yes, songs have always sold, but there has always been a difference between those written to that end, and those created as art.

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The Payoff is a Lie

Maceration of Money

Creative Commons George Eastman House Photography Collection

Lately I have been thinking about why people do the things they do. Why do they sweep off the porch (or why not)? Why do they make sure that both shoelaces are the same length? Why do they go to college? I would guess that most people don’t really have answers to these questions. Sure, most could provide a quick answer, but would it stand up against questioning?

Let’s take the college question for example. Many students would say “To get a good job.” This is fair enough, but the word “good” requires definition. It is often used synonymously with “lucrative” or “well-paying.” Now we’re getting somewhere. Do these students like to acquire stuff like wave-runners and big houses with pretty furniture? Or do they want to make sure that their own Tiny Tim always gets the surgery instead of crutches? Is that why they need a good job? Never mind the fact that ideally college would be attended to stamp out personal ignorance like a flaming lunch bag left on a door step. It just seems like something one should do. If their goal is to acquire the wave-runners and house, it is likely they are on the right track. If they are seeking personal well-being, however, they may be kidding themselves.

I would like to declare one thing; there is no payoff. There is no reckoning in the sense that one day someone will come up and shake their hands and say “Congratulations, you passed life! Enjoy the rest of your stay here on Earth.” Most everything in the world is subjective. I learned this in Alaska. I would judge people who lived in a small self-built cabin, living off caught fish and personally cutting wood for warmth as poor or unsuccessful. Many of these people were unlearned in the academic sense, but once again, who decided that recognizing a reference to Kafka was essential to a well-lived life?

It may be the opposite, in fact. The quest for personal success can be detrimental to search for well-being. If someone earns a lot of money, it is likely that their children will ask for that much more compared to other children. Their spouse will not thank them for their tireless work, but ask why they’re never home. And the last of the terrible news: people with college degrees are not any happier than those without.

Anyone could fly a float plane for a living, spending all their days in the crisp Alaskan air soaring over grizzly bears catching fish in the rivers below. Would it matter to them that jobs are being outsourced and they don’t have their TPS reports done? No. They just fly their shiny yellow plane. They see Alaska. They are happy. No one could tell them that they are a failure because the concept of success is completely subjective. Those who some call genius business tycoons, others call money-grubbing crooks.

Many people spout-off the old maxim “Money doesn’t buy happiness.” I have always only half-agreed with this. It is true in a sense, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t help one focus on the things that do bring happiness. The trick is balancing the ratio between things that work against you in your quest for happiness, and the things that help. Money is just one of the factors which could be a trial, depending what side the dice of your life falls on.

I don’t care how much society values hard work ethic, etc; I will never be convinced that a life lived in a cubicle is well spent. No one really cares what anyone does with their life. Many think they do, and they may pretend to, but they really don’t. Not everyone can be rockstars and astronauts, but I believe that everyone has an equal chance at happiness.

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Someone Thinks You’re Dumb

Remember that one time when you were driving down the road and you pointed at someone and said “look” to the person sitting next to you? Chances are, that has happened more than once, and your intent was to point out how silly/stupid/dumb that person looks doing/wearing/driving whatever they were at the moment. I have. I bet you have too.

No matter what you do, like, listen to, or wear; someone thinks you are an idiot for doing so. No matter what. Being one of peculiar tastes, I have been on the other end of this many times. I have also been surprised at how someone can laugh at me one moment and another someone else will compliment me for the same thing seconds later.

It is amazing how many different tastes there are. For instance, I cannot understand in the slightest people’s affinity for certain popular music. The same could be said for them regarding my favorite music I’m sure.

Something that I have realized is that most unique people who I see do not upset me in the slightest. I think that it is a human reflex to mock others to justify personal stance on whatever topic the mockery is based upon, but I have realized that if I suppress that urge, then it is okay to be “interested” by the person I am seeing. Let me give you an example.

Do you know what what Larping is? It is the word made up to describe those who enjoy “Live Action Role Play” (L.A.R.P.). This is a derivative of roleplaying games such as Dungeons and Dragons and the video game World of Warcraft. In these games, people take on roles of mystical creatures and animals with special powers and combat their friends who also play these roles. Somewhere along the way, some people decided that they were tired of sitting around a table rolling dice, and wanted to dress up as their respective creatures, and run around acting out the games. This includes giant foam swords and spears being carried and sometimes with people wearing makeup playing monsters for enemies. Do I hear you snickering? Hold on.

What makes their hobby any more strange than yours? Smearing oil paint around a canvas to create representations of scenic vistas sounds just as crazy as Larping when you think about it. There is no “normal.” Only majorities, conventions, and societal norms. This just means many people participate in these things, not that they are “right.” People laughed at Galileo Galilei for supporting the heliocentric model.

The other day I saw a group of Larpers gathered together. They were wearing scabbards over their tights, and carried more leather accessories than most people do on a normal day. Do you know what I thought? Rock on. Enjoy your life. Do what you want to do. It made me excited to see someone smiling.

I’m not saying I’m perfect. I still hold violent malice towards Smart Car drivers. But with a little work, maybe I can learn to appreciate their passion too.

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How Not to Argue – A Public Service

You’ve seen it before a thousand times. An argument breaks out next to the water cooler, in class, at home. If it is some kind of philosophical or moral dilemma being debated, there is one thing that is inevitable. Someone is going to pull the Hitler card.

No, the Hitler card (Reductio ad Hitlerum) is not some sort of Dungeons and Dragonesque playing card one keeps in a meticulously organized folder, but it might as well be. People throw it out like the “wild card” in UNO, believing that it will prove their point and end the discussion allowing them to ride off into the sunset of argumentative glory.

The Hitler card is the designation given to a fallacious method of persuasion. It is commonly used when the losing party in an argument runs out of points to their favor, and resorts to petty comparisons. I think that this is best described with an example.

“Hitler believed in gun control, so gun control is wrong.”

You could also replace “gun control” with abortion, capitol punishment, censorship, vegetarianism… etc. The idea is to discredit the opponent through revelation that their position on the issue is shared with Hitler. This is flawed for various reasons. If we were to believe that anything which Hitler believed in was wrong because of his various unrelated crimes against humanity, we would likely want to stop: cooking our food, cleaning our bedsheets, using combs, or countless other things. It seems silly, but people actually use this argument!

This is simplified and very clear cut, but I believe it illustrates the point. The Hitler card is used in vain to show that if Hitler or the Nazi party believed in something, it is wrong. It sounds absurd but in the heat of argument it is used very often. An issue should be considered based upon its own merits, and not upon those who have associated themselves with it.

In this spirit, I have created a list of other logical fallacies which people use in an effort to support their arguments, but only end up proving their foolishness.

Black or White Fallacy/False Dilemma

“It is either this way, or that way.” This is often used in religious arguments in order to provoke a hasty conclusion. Smoothing out large issues into two choices does not help solve problems. Why doesn’t this work? Because if you decide to say that abortion is either right or wrong, you are ignoring smaller issues such as whether it should be used in situations of incest or rape, or when an embryo should be considered “alive.” It is just much too complicated to fit into two categories.

Ad Hominem

“Obama smokes so his proposed health care system must be bogus.” This has ties to the Hitler card, but it needs to be stated. This is when you attack a person personally with an irrelevant issue in an attempt to weaken their argument. You will often see this in arguments between couples. One may recall irrelevant past discretions in an attempt to augment the current discussion. Although it sounds persuasive, it is not logical. The decision at hand should be considered, not ones in the past. For instance, just because your girlfriend may have forgotten to feed the dog, doesn’t mean she shouldn’t get to pick out which new fridge to buy. (Disclaimer: Luckily I don’t ever have to deal with this tactic being used in my home).

Circular Argument

Assuming what you set out to prove. This one is harder to spot. Lets look at an example. “We know God exists, because it says so in the bible. We know that the Bible is true because it is the word of God.” This is simplified of course, so hopefully you spotted it. If your argument proves itself, it is not a masterfully crafted rhetorical gem, it is a bad argument.

In conclusion, usage of any of these arguments by an opponent does not disprove their argument either. It only proves that they are using a bad argument. I would like to issue a challenge to everyone to be more rhetorically aware, and to not use bad argumentative tactics.

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My Obituary (in the Classified Ads)

Man and Wife

Body for sale. Well used. 1986 model. No paperwork included. Original owner. Near running condition. Great for someone who wants a fixer upper (advanced medical degree suggested). Often left out in the sun, and thus dried out at times with leather cracked and peeling. Well loved. Many miles, fortunately. Mostly used around town, but many freeway as well. Air and sea mileage only on special occasions. Not bad looking, but not the best either. Red interior. Some missing parts, and some work better than others. Smoke free.

This will go fast, call today.

I wrote this while thinking about how I would like to have lived my life when I die. Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere anytime soon (that I know of). I have already lived 23 years on this green, blue and brown rock hurtling through space, and feel pretty good about it so far. But the years previous have been easy ones to have fun. I have realized that pretty much from here on out, I will have to make a conscious decision when I am going to kick my feet back and not work. Especially since my planned profession will require a lot of my time. I’m okay with that, but I hope I can manage to realize that I am working to live, and not living to work.

Isn’t that it really? The reason I go to school, is so I can get a job that will enable me to not worry about the cost of living, and otherwise enjoy that living. I hope I can do that, and if my body were like a vehicle of some sort, the ad wouldn’t look like one for a peach 60’s era coupe that has been parked and preserved inside.

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